Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Difference Between John MacArthur and Andy Stanley in Two Sentences

Andy Stanley: "If this is your first time in church or your first time in a long time, and you feel a little uncomfortable, relax." (from Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend)

John MacArthur: "(I)f an unbeliever is comfortable in a church, then it’s not a church." (Bible Question & Answers #62)

The 7-Minute Marriage Solution by Stephen Arterburn (Book Review #124 of 2014)

7-Minute Marriage Solution, The: 7 Things to Start! 7 Things to Stop! 7 Minutes That Matter Most!
The book is divided into two sections, Seven Things to Stop and Seven Things to Start (pdf list). My wife and I read through this and did not watch the videos linked at the beginning of each chapter; we also did not notice the study guide at the end of the book, which takes you through two parallel chapters a session (one thing to stop, one thing to start) with discussion questions. Looking at Arterburn's website, there appears to be a host of videos with answers to commonly asked questions if you sign up.

My wife and I read through books on marriage regularly, and I think this one didn't really stand out as stellar for either of us. There are good principles that are found in most Christian books on marriage but much of the book is annoyingly repetitive. Spoiler alert: The 7-Minute aspect is not mentioned until the conclusion of the book, and it's making sure you do a (minimum) 7-minute devotional with your spouse every day. Scripture, meditation, discussion, and prayer. I'm not sure why he didn't include that at the beginning of the book, or in the chapters on what to begin doing if it's the most important thing.  If you are looking for a simple book/study to do with your spouse or small group, then this one is simple enough; I'm just not sure it's worth paying much for. I'm pretty sure we would both rank put Love and Respect above this book in the recommended reading order, and I might also recommend Fun Loving You as the second half of this book focuses on proactive activities to express grace and focus on joy. Honestly, the best marriage book I read this year was the Journal of Best Practices by David Finch. That is a non-Christian look at a husband and wife trying to pursue real friendship, give up their expectations, and flesh out much of what is written in 7-Minute Marriage.

I personally appreciated the reminder in the book to "accept and celebrate the differences" between my wife and myself (p. 15). This point is reiterated in a few chapters, but it mostly relates back to "stop clinging to unrealistic expectations" (chapter 1), "stop trying to change your mate" (chapter 4), "start showing respect no matter what" (chapter 14).

Somewhat related, the most difficult advice for me was in not giving advice or pretending advice isn't criticism:
"Unsolicited advice comes from the same bag of unworkable tricks as criticism" (p. 45).

I struggle with this one because in the working world we have to do job evaluations. We need the critiques and advice of others we trust to improve our performance. I need to know if I'm doing something unacceptable or if someone thinks I could improve X by doing Y. That's more difficult in marriage, where men tend to want to "fix" problems or women entered the marriage dreaming of how they would change their mate. "When you married you stood at the altar, not the alter" (p. 44). "Rather than pray for God to change your spouse, pray that God would give you the supernatural ability to be more accepting of your spouse" (p. 49).

I enjoyed the chapter on anger. Anger is a symptom of entitlement, we get angry because the world isn't exactly as we want it. "Anger comes from having your expectations dashed, your standards violated, your wants unmet, or your desires frustrated. Your little castle of self is not to be breached" (p. 54). "The antidote to anger is humility" (p. 66). My wife and I have come to terms with working through our anger before discussing root causes and solutions later. Perhaps this book will help you do the same.

Kindness is also extremely important, as explained in the book. If you're more courteous than your overbearing boss and your annoying co-workers at work than you are with your family, then something is wrong. "As Christians we are called to treat each other with love, patience, and kindness. This call is meaningless if you treat the other with love and kindness only when you feel like it" (p. 57).

There are chapters on dealing with money and loving through past hurts, sins, and addictions. Oddly missing are points about the role of the church and the importance of support of and accountability to other Christian couples.

In all, I give this book 3 stars. Good, not great.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Expository Listening by Ken Ramey (Book Review #123 of 2014)

Expository Listening: A Practical Handbook for Hearing and Doing God's Word

I agree with the author about the importance of biblical, expository preaching but disagree about his rigid adherence to a particular paradigm. Rodney Reeves is one preacher who has shown me you can use the Socratic method in expositing a passage-- asking questions of your audience, as Paul likely did when he reasoned with listeners and skeptics, as a powerful way to keep your audience engaged. Studies have repeatedly found that the "sage on stage" lecture method that Ramey tacitly holds up in this book is one of the least-effective ways to teach as measured by the audience's retention of information. If the preacher's goal is to get your audience to remember God's word and retain his exposition, then he should be more creative than simply following a traditional format. Ramey is like Mark Dever and others who pine for the days of the Puritans and hours-long sermons. Just because the Puritans did it, does not mean it's effective or even necessary. Ironically, Ramey understands James 1:19 ("Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak) to be remarking on the practice common in James' day of people commenting on and asking questions during the sermon. It appears James does not forbid this practice but rather seeks humility and patience among the audience. Since Ramey claims that text gives evidence of that practice, then I would point to it and Acts 17:17 as evidence that there is more than just a one-sided option to expository preaching.

Alistair Begg, for example, believes that expository preaching should be done in under 30 minutes, and he does it in about 25. But I have not found any other expository preachers that hold to that, most don't mind waxing on for an hour. (I got this book by recommendation of Begg's podcast, by the way.) Ramey holds up Begg as a model preacher but does not mention this.

Page 56 holds the best explanation of what biblical (ie: expository) preaching is all about:
"If after listening to a sermon you do not have a better understanding of God's purpose for your life, then you have not heard biblical preaching. You may have received a few practical pointers about how to get along with your spouse, raise your kids, or manage your finances. You may have laughed and even ried and left feeling encouraged and motivated. But what you heard did not truly qualify as biblical preaching. That's not to say the Bible was never referenced. But in the topical/textual style of preaching that has become so popular today, there is a tendency for verses to get skimmed over, or worse, ripped out of their context and used to make a good point but, unfortunately, not the point God intended...'springboard' preaching is the norm, Bibles are faithfully carried and reverently read at the beginning of the sermon but...are never referred to again. In churches where topical sermons are typical, few if any feel the need to bring their Bibles because they are never encouraged to use them since the verses mentioned in the sermon are conveniently displayed on a screen or some kind of fill-in-the-blank sheet in the bulletin."

One aspect I enjoyed was the reminder that sermons do two things: harden and soften hearts. Preachers who see the hardening aspect should not be discouraged, many prophets were told their words would fall on deaf ears and would be used to harden the hearts of the listeners. John Piper is quoted as saying
'Even when preaching the Word of God does not soften and save and heal, it is not necessarily ineffective. This preaching of the Word may be doing God's terrible work of Judgment. It may be hardening people, and making their ears so dull that they will never want to hear again' (p. 29).

The purpose of this book is to put the impetus on the listener both to be attentive and to be a "doer of the Word:"
"Listening is hard work because application is inherent in it. You have to connect the information to your life, to do something about what you hear...Failure to apply a sermon is not just lazy listening; it is sin (James 4:17)" (p. 87).

Ramey closes the book with some suggestions on how to come to church prepared. Ideally, your pastor follows a biblical preaching model of going verse-by-verse through the text so you know what's coming next week. You should already have read and spent time prayerfully meditating on the text, asking God to reveal more understanding to you through your pastor's exposition. Ramey includes tips such as "eat a good breakfast" (p. 112). But mental alertness is a function of many other activities, like mental and physical exercise, that are neglected by Ramey. Who doesn't understand that in order not to be hungry by noon one needs to "eat a good breakfast"?

Ramey writes as though one can never have too much biblical preaching, but this ignores the fact that being doers of the Word requires activities that are not listening to sermons. We can worship God through our work, our singing, playing with our children, etc. Ramey also writes as if people do not have access to expository sermons except by their own pastors on Sunday. I listen to a dozen or so sermons a week by various pastors via podcast (see list on the right). Those sermons can be sped up to save time-- all of us can think and process information faster than we can speak. I recommend that as a good way to get biblical preaching.

In all, this book preaches to the choir which is why it is recommended by so many proverbial choral directors. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Sermon of the Week (12/21 - 12/27, 2014) Romans 8:28-30 by Andy Lawrence and Tony Cecil

Sermon of the Week is the weekly series where I highlight a sermon (from the selection of preachers on the right) that I believe best explained a passage or had the biggest impact on my week.

I'm behind in posting because I got behind in listening, had to use part of the holiday to catch up (in place of my commutes; I had a 4-day weekend). This week I'm highlighting two sermons on the same text, both titled Victorious by His Choosing. The Point Community Church is an Acts 29 church plant in both Frankfort and Lexington. Their elders preach on identical texts but with their own unique takes. They've been working through Romans 7-8, dealing verse-by-verse with some of the more difficult aspects. This text highlights suffering, justification, what it means that God "foreknew," and how this text was meant to be an encouragement to Christians.

Tony Cecil (Lexington) version.
Andy Lawrence (Frankfort) version.

Enjoy and feel free to comment on which sermon you liked the most.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins (Book Review #122 of 2014)

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Stories Behind Books)
Since we use so many of these songs in our worship services around Christmas, shouldn't we Christians learn the origins and intended meanings of the songs? There is so much history, including church history, embedded into the hymns we sing at Christmas, and we are often so ignorant of it. Even non-Christians can appreciate the historical contexts of the hymns. I finished this book the day of my church's Christmas Eve service, when many carols are sung. It gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of each one.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was the story of John Mason Neale and his translation of the 9th century hymn/poem "O Come Emmanuel" from Latin into English in 1851. When we sing this song, we reconnect with the early church. I'd never examined the verses of the song before, it is a seven-part tale of Advent. Neale is an interesting character, a polyglot whose desire to share the Gospel with outcasts as well as his interest in non-Anglican church history led to his quasi-exile to Africa where he set to work translating ancient Latin texts. The stories behind the lyrics, and the music the lyrics were later set to, make for interesting reading.

Collins, however, skips over Neale's work on Good King Winceslas and Good Christian Men Rejoice. This looseness and errors discovered by various fact-checking reviewers drives this book down to a 3-star rating. Critics have found him to be incorrect about Irving Berlin's thoughts on White Christmas, the "true meaning" of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and his published interpretation of the meaning of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. This makes me skeptical of other things in the book, but a little research finds that the histories behind many songs are quite complicated and historians differ frequently.

Another example of an ancient hymn is Good Christian Men Rejoice, the text of which dates back to at least 1400. Collins credits this work to the German mystic and Dominican monk Henrich Suso, although it's Neale who popularized the work in English.

Here is what else I gleaned from the book:
Many of the Christmas songs traced back to 18th and century England were unusual in that they were written by laypeople in the vernacular and were not accepted by the Church, which already had its centuries-long established hymns that were usually in Latin and quite somber. Some songs were written by dissidents like Isaac Watts and took decades to be appreciated or celebrated.

Angels from the Realm of Glory was originally a poem published in a newspaper, which brought embattled Irish and English some peace. It helped start a movement of new songs in the church instead of the traditional, Latin hymns mandated by the church.

Angels We Have Heard on High has unknown origins but could be from a monastery or even have roots in the first centuries.

Away in a Manger is American, not written by Martin Luther.

Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire is by Mel Torme, not Nat King Cole. But the hit attributed to Cole opened the door for more African-American hits in the mainstream.

The First Nowell was probably from England, written by someone with poor language grasp and perhaps illiterate (hence shepherds follow the star). It was likely a folk song for 300 years before being formally written down. 
Do You Hear What I Hear was written during the Vietnam war by a French immigrant, who was both a former Nazi soldier and resistance fighter.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a Negro spiritual.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was either from the 15th century (as Collins claims) or the 1760s (as Snopes suggests). Collins holds it up as an example of work by laypeople who wanted to express their faith musically in a different way than the somber, Latin tunes mandated by their parishes. Collins claims that a modern translation would be "God keep you great/mighty, Gentlemen." According to Snopes, the Oxford English Dictionary does not support Collins' claim that "merry" means "mighty."
Longfellow wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after his son was injured in Civil War, trying to make sense of the madness.

Likewise, O Little Town of Bethlehem came out of a sabbatical to Palestine taken by the distraught minister who officiated Abraham Lincoln's funeral.

Oh Holy Night was the collaborative work of men including an atheist Jew and a Unitarian Socialist. The atheist wrote a poem that was put to music, and later edited and translated into English by a Unitarian Minister in Boston. The verse including "the slave is our brother" was intentionally making a statement in favor of abolition, circa 1855. It was the second piece of music ever to be broadcast over radio.

The precise origins of Silent Night were unclear until about 1995. Silent Night was basically an accident. After the organ in an Austrian parish was damaged by mice, the minister, Joseph Mohr, enlisted the help of a parishioner (Franz Gruber) to write a melody for one of Mohr's poems, "Stille Nacht." Gruber used a guitar and wrote a four-part harmony that was performed at the church on Christmas Eve in 1818. Collins neglects to mention that this version is more lively than the somber one translated into English in the 1850s that we sing today. That song is probably the most widely known worldwide.

I Wonder as I Wander was discovered and published by a Kentuckian, John Jacob Niles, who chronicled American folk music. He happened across a young girl in North Carolina singing the song and was never able to determine its origin. He edited it into a full song and the rest is history.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing was originally composed by John Wesley, who was incensed when it was then re-written and published by George Whitfield.

The musician/comedian Mark Lowry wrote Mary Did You Know.

The more modern Hollywood-created songs covered in this book also have some interesting stories which are covered in this book:

Silver Bells was almost "Tinker Bells" and its authors also wrote the theme song for Mr. Ed.

Judy Garland was instrumental in re-writing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to be more hopeful, as she had seen the importance of songs like Somewhere Over the Rainbow to troops as she performed in the USO.

In all, I recommend this book for an important look at the history of hymns we sing. But don't cite it as authoritative and be sure to fact-check everything. I had to do a lot of searching as I wrote this review.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas: Its Origin and Associations by W. F. Dawson (Book Review #121 of 2014)

Christmas: Its Origin and Associations Together with Its Historical Events and Festive Celebrations During Nineteen Centuries by W.F. Dawson.

This book was published in 1905 and is available for free at Gutenberg.org and other sources. I downloaded it hoping to learn the origins of various Christmas traditions and the book was a huge disappointment in that area.

This is basically a book about English history through the lens of Christmas. The author has endeavored to gather every historical occurance on Christmas, how each English monarch celebrated it, and various wars and controversies around that date each year. He throws in poems, songs, and scripts of plays performed on the Christmas holiday in England-- too much superfluous information and far too broad. The book concludes with a look at how Christmas is celebrated in various countries, circa the late 1800s, according to newspaper accounts and correspondence with British people all over the world.

Dawson begins with the biblical origins of Christmas, and then how its date was debated by the early church in the first centuries. He gives a brief explanation of how Dionysius miscounted the number of years when designing the Christian calendar adopted by the Western Church (so, Christ was likely born in 4 B.C.). There is evidence that even prior to Constantine, Christians were commemorating the birth of Christ perhaps even in the month of December, which coincided with the winter solstice and common pagan celebrations of this time. (It seems every ancient culture celebrated the winter solstice in some form). Emperor Diocletian reportedly massacred Christians during a Christmas celebration in 303 AD. The Romans had Bacchanalia and Saturnalia, which were similar to the Scandinavian celebrations adopted by the natives of Britain. "Bacchanalian illustrations have been found among the decorations in the early Christian Churches" (p. 20).  Focusing on England, ancient Saxons and other northern nations kept a Yule festival, honoring the Norse God Thor. The Yule celebration was not explained by Dawson, but I learned from another book that the burning of a yule log packed with incense (and mingled with the remains of the prior year's yule log) was expected to bring good luck to the household and favor to the start of a new year. Later, Christians continuing the practice said that the log represented the cross, and its sweet incense the new life that Christ gives believers.

According to Dawson "Towards the end of the (winter solstice) feast, when the sun was on its return, and the world was considered to be renovated, a king or ruler was chosen, with power granted to him during his ephemeral reign" (p. 21).  This may explain why so many English coronations occurred on Christmas, along with many royal weddings. St. Alban, martyred during Diocletian's reign was purportedly the first Christian martyr in Britain (p. 25).

Post-Constantine, Christmas celebrations included elaborate feasts, gift-giving, stage plays, and card games, a tradition that would continue in England to the time of the author's writing. Early church records show there was some concern from the clergy about the excessive nature and dancing of these festivals. As early as Alfred the Great (9th century), twelve days from Nativity to Epiphany were set aside in England expressly for the celebration of Christmas. Monarchs in England continued the tradition, spending great sums on festivities, masquerade dramas, weddings, and more. If you disdain how Christmas decorations show up in stores after Halloween in the U.S., know that some monarchs also increased the length of festivities for months at a time. As often shops were forbidden to be open during the festival, this was not great for the local economy. During the various civil wars, hostilities interrupted Christmas celebrations.

On December 25 in 1214 (800 years ago as I write this), the Magna Charta was agreed upon by King John and the English barons who resented his abuse of power. The Charta is hailed as an achievement of human rights and a step toward democracy. The summoning of the first representative national Parliament took place on Christmas in 1264 (p. 78).

Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on Christmas Day, 1492 (p. 117). Henry VII forbid card playing except at Christmas (p. 119). IN 1617, James I imposed religious festivals like Christmas on the Scottish Church, which was denounced (p. 240). This is a description of Christmas written in the 17th century (p. 249-250)

"Nicholas Breton, [70] writing in merry mood, says: 'It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you:—and against the New Year provide for the presents:—The Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy...hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship.'"

However, as Puritans gained ascendency in the 1600s, Christmas celebrations began to be denounced. When the Puritans gained control of Parliament, they outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1647. By law, Christmas was to be treated as an ordinary weekday with shops opened and pastors forbidden to preach on Christmas Day. Commoners, particularly Londoners, kept the celebration in defiance. By 1649, riots broke out in response to decrees outlawing Christmas as England descended into civil war between Royalists and those who were opposed to monarchy. Charles II came to power under a restored monarchy in 1660 and reinstated the Christmas holiday, to the joy of the citizens (p. 269-270):

"These holidays we'l briskly drink, all mirth we will devise, No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave minc'd pies Roast Beef and brave Plum porridge, our Loyal hearts to chear, Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas Beer."

Eventually, Christmas traditions also included ghost stories (338), wassailing crowds of peasants shooting apple trees (343-345), morning church services, and various English dramas.

Dawson's world tour of modern Christmas celebrations includes a look at America, quoting Howard Paul in 1855 (p. 382):
"Society generally seems to apportion the day thus: Church in the morning, dinner in the afternoon, and amusements in the evening. The Christmas dinners concentrate the scattered members of families, who meet together to break bread in social harmony, and exchange those home sentiments that cement the happiness of kindred...and a Christmas sleigh-ride is one of those American delights that defy gravity."

"A curious feature of an American Christmas is the eg-nogg and free lunch, distributed at all the hotels and cafes" (p. 386). There is an excerpt about how President William Henry Harrison expected to celebrate Christmas in 1891, and how Christmas was celebrated by African-Americans in the South.

I found the description of traditional Christmas in pre-Revolution Russia to be interesting. On Christmas Eve, peasants traditionally sang "Kolyadki," referencing an ancient solar goddess (p. 428). There is a description of how the Russian Orthodox Church traditionally celebrated Christmas (428-429).

If you want to know the origins of various traditions and symbols of Christmas, you will not find it in this book. As such, I give it 2.5 stars out of 5. If you want a look at English history and the various events that occurred on Christmas Day in England throughout the centuries, this is the book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Something I did not succeed at this year

Looking back on the last year, I've accomplished many things that I wanted to get done. Buying a house is probably the most significant accomplishment. Building a pull-up bar in the garage is another. I read several (but not all) of the books I intended to read in 2014.

However, looking back at the year on my blog there is at least one major thing I didn't get done:

Two of the first books I reviewed this year were Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard's Spirit of the Disciplines. Both included chapters on Christian meditation, on Scripture and in prayer. I also linked to a Tim Ferriss interview in May mentioning that meditation is usually listed in the daily habits of the successful people Ferriss interviews. I struggled with this goal and it didn't really hit me until I saw the 60 Minutes piece on the mindfulness movement last Sunday. The secular world gets this-- you need to unplug from your iPhone, focus on breathing, focus on gratitude, and be in the present moment-- better than the Christian world. And this is a shame because it's historically Christians who have pioneered this stuff. I recommend yoga at least once a week but fell out of that habit sometime in the summer.

I've taken a tip from the mindfulness guru in the 60 Minutes piece (including Google's on-call guy) to consciously focus on my posture and breathing throughout the day (and commutes). To not just blow through my lunch and multitasking by reading an article while I eat, but to focus on the chewing-- be in that activity alone. (That keeps you satisfied longer so you don't snack later.) To spend a moment breathing and consciously giving thanks even just for life when I first wake up, rather than rush to accomplish everything on my to-do list for the morning.

This is hard, it's a discipline for a reason. Here's to 2015.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sermon of the Week (12/14 - 12/19, 2014) Mark Dever on Luke 1:1-4, Luke 1:5-2:40

Sermon of the Week is the weekly series where I highlight a sermon (from the selection of preachers on the right) that I believe best explained a passage or had the biggest impact on my week.

I'm sticking with the Advent theme this week. Dever does a passionate job of explaining these passages in these two sermons; he gives a brief apologetic for the Lukan account as well. The first ("Jesus in the Bible") is really an overview of Luke, the second ("Jesus in the Manger") is focusing on the birth narrative and the faith (and lack thereof) of Zechariah. (Given his effort at apologetics, I'm a little disappointed he didn't focus on the historically problematic aspects of Ceasar's/Quirinius' census, this is one of the harder passages to square historically.) They are really good Christmas sermons. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (Book Review #120 of 2014)

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
Tim Geithner cited this book in his memoir so I know Silver's writing has been influential on at least one policy maker. I read this book partially out of curiousity over how smart Silver really is when it comes to economics and statistics. This book came after Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com blog successfully predicted Presidential and Senate races and publishers wanted to capitalize on nerdy books like Michael Lewis' Moneyball. While Silver's election forecasting has been lauded, I never found it much more than novel-- he explains in the book that he simply took an average of others' forecasts, weighted by their past accuracy. The digging through data was more impressive to me than the results. I strongly encourage this book to anyone interested in forecasting, especially as applied to economics and policy making in areas such as climate change and financial regulation. It's also a good read for those starting a business or for CEOs looking to push back on their internal forecasters. Prerequisites before reading it are Michael Lewis' Moneyball and The Big Short; Bob Schiller's Irrational Exuberance, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow; and I would also recommend Benoit Mandelbroit's (Mis)Behavior of Markets. I would also recommend the climate change chapters in Dubner & Levitt's SuperFreakonomics.

Silver intends the book to be an investigation of various data-driven predictions. He is also proselytizing in the name of Bayesian analysis with the goal of leading the reader think more probabilistically. Silver writes that we can all improve our predictions by adjusting them when new information arises. This may seem like common sense, but I forecast for a budget office that has to project quarterly tax revenue two years in advance and doesn't have the luxury of regularly updating the published forecast when new information comes in (a real problem when the average retail price of gasoline comes in over $1/gallon below what anyone was forecasting even a year ago). it takes both courage and humility to be Bayesian when our media culture often hammers people for "flip-flopping" on issues. Bayesian thinking uses prior estimates as a starting point, and changing them as you encounter new information.

Perhaps what I like most about this book are the interviews Silver conducts with people ranging from NASA scientists to economists to Donald Rumsfeld. He converses with Justin Wolfers over his critiques of Silver's predictions at FiveThirtyEight.com. He talks with forecasters about their forecasts, theories, problems, etc. even though he already knows a lot about the field. I work as an economic forecaster for state government, and I see the best practices, the most common mistakes, and the heuristic biases that Silver describes in detail.

Silver begins with a seemingly odd-fitting hypothesis: as Gutenberg's printing press made books and knowledge more widespread, conflict increased as people felt they had more control over their own destinies. As we have more information/data, we know less of what to do with it. We pick and choose which data we prefer and become more tribal, more hostile to other tribes who focus on a different set of data.

The terms forecasting and prediction are currently used interchangeably but had subtly different meanings with theological implications in the Middle Ages. Even today, seismologists say earthquakes cannot be predicted, as "predict" means a set time and date. But they can be forecasted, meaning that a forecast is a probability of an event, usually over a range of time. Forecasts are made in uncertainty. The U.S. has a "prediction addiction" and a prediction problem. Predictions for seemingly important series--like GDP, inflation, and unemployment-- have been wildly inaccurate. The important economic variables most frequently forecast tend to be consistently wrong. Silver recounts the housing bubble and 2007 financial crisis where CDOs were being AAA rated by ratings agencies who should have known better. Some economists acknowledged the housing bubble but did not accurately predict the consequences of its bursting. In this lengthy section, Silver cites Schiller, Rogoff & Reinhart, Larry Summers, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and others. Silver chalks up the ratings agencies' errors to the common forecasting error of not having a large enough sample size, making later observations appear much more improbable than they should be. Many of Wall Street's forecasters' models only went back to the 1980s, and missed the simple fact that real housing prices did not appreciate very much over the long-haul, not to mention several recessions in American history.

Silver performed an amusing survey of The McLaughlin Group's weekly forecasts and found them to be no better than flipping a coin. He looks at how experts in various fields tend to be inaccurate in their forecasts. There are "foxes" who know something about a lot of things and "hedgehogs" who know one big thing. Hedgehogs make good TV guests but are not as good at predicting, studies have shown, as foxes. (The most recent example of this I've seen was a finding that various ivy league experts' predictions on Russia and foreign policy were more inaccurate in their predictions of Russian aggression toward Crimea than less-credentialed experts or experts in other fields.) Silver remarks that good forecasts are not just purely data-driven, more and better data help but sometimes not all that much. In politics, an incumbent running in a district solid for his party might suddenly be trounced at the news of infidelity or corruption, something a purely statistical model wouldn't predict.

Silver cut his forecasting teeth on Major League Baseball, designing a system (PECOTA) to forecast draft picks and minor leaguers' potential output. PECOTA did okay against scouts but not fabulous, and Silver sold the system to Baseball Prospectus while he went on to publish books and start FiveThirtyEight.com. It's easy to conclude that a little bit of computer know-how can give you a huge advantage, but Silver states that's not what he's intending to say. Better models may help you at the margin, but like any business, forecasting is competitive and people will adjust and take away your advantages.

What is needed is a good harmony between man and machine (Tyler Cowen picked up this theme in his recent book Average is Over). Algorithms cannot replace humans at forecasting completely, at least not anytime soon. Silver gives the example of weather forecasting, stating that humans add about 25% accuracy to computer models simply by using their eyes to identify outliers on the weather map, faster than computers or t-tests can. He evaluates the forecasts of NOAA and The Weather Channel, noting that as the U.S. government nicely provides weather data for free, for-profit forecasters compete in terms of accuracy. But the perception of being accurate is the most important-- the incentive is ratings, not accuracy, after all.

The government also publishes free economic data but it is messy, noisy, and constantly subject to revision. Economic forecasters don't publish confidence intervals for their forecasts because they are "embarrassed." As an economic forecaster, I've always wondered why we don't publish such intervals but Silver explains the history here. Silver does explain the problem of "overfitting" in forecasts-- putting in too many independent variables to fit the curve or too often being "fooled by randomness" (an oddly sly allusion to Nassim Taleb, who Silver leaves out of the book... there must be some history between them).

Silver writes of a successful gambler on NBA games who has a statistical model but also watches most of the games and makes personal judgements about how the team is communicating with one another, the effort they're visibly putting out, etc. This theme leads to a long exposition of poker and how gamblers have to quickly calculate the odds of opponents' hands given what you hold, what she has done. A computer would be good at this, but not at the aspects of bluffing which anyone who has watched Star Trek:TNG knows.

There is a detailed look at Kasparov vs. IBM's Deep Blue. Chances are that your chess game will result in a position that has never before been played or recorded. Machines programmed with millions of pre-played game data run out of history after a few moves, and have to formulate a strategic analysis of the game. Silver learns in an interview that an undiscovered bug in Deep Blue's program threw off Kasparov's estimation of the computer's ability and strategy when he was analyzing the match results afterward. This resulted in Deep Blue ultimately shaking Kasparov. Kasparov thinks more like a poker player at times, trying to determine if Deep Blue has a "tell" or is bluffing.

Silver writes that the average forecaster is still probably good relative to average guy on the street and he makes this point looking at poker-player data. He played online poker as a slightly above-average player, making money. When later looking at data he realized that the bottom 10% of players were so bad that they were subsidizing the average players. When the bottom 10% dwindled, the previously average players like Silver became the bottom 10% and lost. Apparently, 52%  of online players have bachelor's degree, and are smarter than the average citizen who just buys a lottery ticket. This leads to overconfidence and a sense of entitlement, which Silver admitted to while playing. Poker takes more skill than roulette, but is still heavily dependent on luck. This segways into a comparison with stock traders who also suffer from hubris and a belief he/she is "above average."

Silver gives a good summary of Eugene Fama's efficient markets hypothesis and Richard Thaler's critique-- the "no free lunch" aspect versus the "price is always right" aspect. Silver channels Kahneman to describe how heuristics and biases affect buyers/sellers' forecasts. We should all be aware of our biases and working against them (Silver recommends Robin Hanson's blog for help) and purporting we have none shows we have many. Never trust a forecaster or scientists who states he has no biases.

From here, Silver looks at the enormously controversial yet important forecasting of climate change. While there is wide agreement among climatologists about the underlying theory, the warming trend, and causes, there is wide disagreement about the models used to forecast. This is important because the forecasts are often 30-100 years out and the margin for error quite high. There is contentious disagreement about the use of computer models. Scientists are dismissive of forecasters and models, where climate skeptic forecasters are dismissive of the science. Silver cautions that one should never trust a forecaster who is dismissive or ignorant of the underlying science behind the data he is forecasting, and never trust a scientist who is dismissive or ignorant of statistics and forecasting.

One problem with climate change over time, and betting on various models is that you can easily cherry-pick your start/end date to get a different result (are temperatures trending higher or lower?). Silver examines some of the forecasts and finds the IPCC's model (problematic for reasons he describes) as fairly accurate since the 1990s. Nonetheless, Bayesian analysis would suggest that people are correct to increase their skepticism about the warming trend in recent years, since the earth's temperatures have not warmed from 2004-2011. Each new data point should cause an adjustment of your forecast. Silver laments that we could have been having a debate about the uncertainties of the forecasts all these years, rather than a debate about whether the problem really exists.

Silver's faith in Bayesian analysis and lack of thinking through its logical conclusions is perhaps a weakness of the book. Bayesians like Silver say that our technological progress suggests further advancement is inevitable, and that we're converging on a point where we will seemingly be correct about everything; that we're evolving and will eventually achieve a progressive utopia. I'm reminded of Chris Hedges arguments against such thinking that quantum mechanics demonstrates some things will always be unknowable, and that world history shows no progress toward a utopia. There will always be randomness, there will always be noise mistaken for signal. Silver admits that the political polarization in America suggests our technological advancement is not inevitable. (He also touches on chaos theory throughout the book.)

An example of climatology frustration is that some simple ideas-- like putting sulfur into the atmosphere-- would seem to be something we can at least experiment with. Volcanoes give evidence that putting a small amount of sulfur into the atmosphere would likely reduce the greenhouse effect, but environmentalists clash with climatologists on the issue. Again, if our technological progress suggests further advancement is inevitable the political disputes and cognitive biases suggest otherwise.

Silver closes the book with a look at hindsight bias (although I don't think he uses that term). In hindsight, people wonder how the Pearl Harbor attack could have been a surprise. The silence in radio transmissions from Japan's carrier fleet should have been the signal in the noise. One definition of "noise" is not randomness, but multiple--too many-- signals, which is the problem with SIGINT. The FBI and NSA are constantly following up on leads they find to be false signals.

The conclusion of the book: Think probabilistically. Move from simplifications and approximations to more precise forecasts and statements when more data is collected.
Go from "investors cannot beat the market" to "most investors cannot beat the stock market relative to their risk and transaction costs. It is hard to tell if any can due to noise in the data." Work to reduce your biases: to say that you have none shows that you have many. "Try and err:" Make a lot of forecasts and evaluate them. "Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan edited by Frith Meier (#119 of 2014)

Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan
This book is five stars for the compiling, editing, and first-hand research done by the editor- Frith Maier. She should have won an award simply for that; but this book was actually just her master's thesis. It contains a ton of references, footnotes, historical background, and additional details. The journal itself is, eh, not that informative. I read a lot of travel works by Americans traveling in Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the mid-1800s which are found copyright-free on Gutenberg and other resources. The editors reference a few and I'm eager to read the one by Arthur Cunynghame as well as those of British explorers. This account is quite bland, it's simply shorthand journal entries with very few stories. The editor also includes some excerpts from Kennan's letters, speeches, and articles that are helpful. The stories that are there are interesting, however, and Kennan had a big influence on future Russian thinkers, including his distant relative George Frost Kennan, the diplomat. I'm very glad the editors took the time to piece together this for historical reference so that it would not be left to the dustbin at the Library of Congress.

Kennan is the first American known to have traveled in Daghestan, in 1870. He was already publishing a book on his time spent in Siberia, and his travels and lectures from this trip would propel him into being the first American "expert" on Russia. I lived for two years in an area just south of where Kennan traveled. I lived with actual Lezgins, and while he writes about Lezgins it's not clear he traveled far enough south to actually encounter many. Be that as it may, Kennan gives the reader exposure to several mountain cultures in the late 1800s, when Russian attempts as passification were really just beginning and the Georgian kingdom was in decline, having already capitulated its authority to the Russian state.

Meier does a good job vetting the locations Kennan scrawls in his journal, traveling there with a translator and filmmaker Chris Allingham to retrace his path. Their own journey shows up only in the foreword, afterword, and a few footnotes. Meier has published a book on his own adventures hiking around Central Asia that I'm sure is an interesting read. Kennan spent some time in Scotland before traveling on to St. Petersburg and downriver all the way to modern-day Makhachkala. He encounters a Georgian prince who was taking an account of the province and settling disputes in various villages, helping Kennan along almost as a guide. From there he traverses to Tbilisi and then makes his way to Grozni (Chechnya) before making his way back across the Black Sea to modern-day Istanbul. (The most amusing anecdote of the book, for me, came when he successfully orders a cup of Turkish coffee and throws the concoction out as if he'd been duped into buying fake coffee.)

I recommend this book if you're interested in the Caucasus, it's probably a must-read. There are very few glimpses into the old culture there recorded in English, and his account is worth checking out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rebound Rules by Rick Pitino (Book Review #118 of 2014)

Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0
Pitino's book Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life had an impact on me in the 1990s, and I still refer back to some of its lessons on communication.

I was eager to read this book by a more mature and, if possible, more humble Pitino. I read an article on Pitino by Forde years ago that talked about how he'd mellowed after the loss of his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The article suggested that winning didn't mean as much to the man, and that every success was something to stop and celebrate, and I was curious whether this was true. I also have the perspective of the Pitino who got caught in adultery and secretly paying for his fling's abortion, something that was against everything the man supposedly stood for. It is hard to read this book which lays out Pitino's firm principles (similar to his first book) and square it with that Pitino.

Each chapter has a theme with some examples from the coach's experience, some anecdotal illustrations from business or similar, and a bullet-point summary at the end. The coach's examples are interesting but the canned illustrations from business, drawn from the Wall Street Journal and other sources, are rather dull. Pitino's comments on those illustrations become somewhat annoying. He may express humility at points in the book ("I'm working, on a daily basis, to put others before me" p. 38), but it's clear he still has the confident in his own expertise in everything from other sports to manufacturing to politics. The worst example comes in a foray into theology toward the end of the book.
"Some of our biggest problems in the world today are rooted in religious fanaticism and intolerance of other views. I don't know that there is such thing as a 'chosen' faith, so much as there is a chosen way to live. I don't believe God would exclude a Catholic, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Hindu simply because they chose the wrong doctrine to  follow—not if they've lived a good life" (p. 189).

There are some glimpses into the personal tragedies of Pitino's life that connect the reader to the coach on a deeper level. The first is the death of his infant son, Daniel, in 1987. This came at the height of one of the most joyous seasons, the Providence '87 Final Four team that propelled him to fame and fortune. Pitino reveals much of his and Joanne's grieving process, and how they've worked to make it a positive but it still haunts him. The second is the loss of two of his best friends and brothers-in-law in 2001, just months apart. Minardi is still on their minds as his pictures are in every room of their house. Pitino uses stories from Minardi's life for encouragement and motivation. These events helped humble the coach and help him put family and career into proper perspective.

"Basketball is my passion, but not my life. Helping my players, family members, and friends achieve happiness counts more than the final score of any game. I'm still enjoying what I do immensely and my energy to work remains extremely  high—but there is a greater balance at the end of the day" (p. 13).

Kentucky fans will enjoy his stories about players from those teams although there are more in Success is a Choice. He reveals how and why he and Antoine Walker didn't get along initially, the issues his assistant coaches had in the early days, and more. Louisville fans will particularly enjoy the story of his first meeting/confrontation with the group of misfit players he inherited. He talks a lot about his project players, but admits his failures, like with Terrance Williams.

Pitino admits he left Kentucky in '97 "for the money." He has often expressed regret for this decision as his "failure" in Boston took a lot of time for him to get over. He does explain the reasons for his failures there: he got too caught up in making emotional, short-run decisions with the team to win immediately rather than stick to a long-run strategy. His plan was to retire rich and famous at 55 and he now realizes that was foolish.

I appreciated his retrospective here and anyone who has lost a job or experienced any level of failure can appreciate Pitino's wisdom (p. 29):
Darkness of doubt happens.
Get in touch with your fundamentals to combat doubt.
Denial doesn't work.
Use past mistakes as learning tools
Running away  doesn't work. Don't isolate yourself.
Avoid rebound marriages, like I considered entering into with UNLV.

Besides dealing with the darkness of doubt, my main takeaway from the book is Pitino's resolve to stay "relentlessly positive." Kentucky's 31-point comeback at LSU was the result of staying positive in the huddles. He rejects cynicism and won't tolerate "bitchfests" in meetings. Pitino keeps a written record of whether he remained positive or not in a given day. He's honest about the difficulty:
"The best I've done for a season is to average 70 percent positive days, so there is work to do" (p. 123). He also writes that he gives a copy of Spencer Johnson's The Precious Present to almost everyone and reads it to his players (and even summarizes it in the book). I will have to check it out.

He writes that he has personal accountability on a daily basis for achieving his career goals, and recommends accountability to others. I suppose that his succumbing to a floozie at a bar in front of his friends means he does not maintain that same accountability for his personal life.

My favorite quote from the book comes from the legendary Bill Russell, who spoke to Pitino's locker room before a game (p. 169). Russell rips into the selfish players and demands better:
“I know you guys think I'm making fun of you and calling you out for your egos. But I'm the most egotistical son of a bitch who ever played. The only thing is, my ego didn't come from any individual statistics. Your ego is about points, rebounds, and assists. My ego came from the final score. My ego is team ego. But then again, what do I know? I've only won 11 world championships, back-to- back college championships, 56 college games in a row, and an Olympic gold medal. And that's why I'm Bill Russell and you're not.”

Pitino emphasizes team ego and says he recruits players and coaches who have a "PHD," who are "passionate, hungry, and driven." This is why he now avoids one-and-done players who live in a "microwave" culture of instant gratification. He wants people who he can make better.

"Your goal is to achieve maximum performance on a daily basis, and to help those around you do the same. Set that goal and then try like hell to attain it" (p. 137).

Pitino says retiring on top is not necessarily important to him, he just doesn't want to coach past the point where he no longer has his own PHD. I would say that day is coming pretty soon.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not great, but good enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R.C. Sproul (Book Review #117 of 2014)

Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism
Ligonier Ministries gave this book out for free in November, and I was glad to get it. This book sprang out of Sproul and other Presbyterians' concerns over a push toward ecumenicism in the 1990s. The Evangelical and Catholics Together movement produced a series of statements affirming certain common doctrines on both sides. Sproul and others may have agreed with 95% of the statements but found the other 5% to be essential doctrine on which they would not compromise, and felt no one else should either.

Sproul states his personal biases toward the beginning. He grew up a protestant in a Catholic area and witnessed resulting social divisions. His Catholic best friend was not allowed by his priest to participate in his wedding, and Sproul was only allowed to attend his friend's wedding at a distance. He's glad to march in pro-life rallies and defend the sanctity of marriage with Catholics but now refuses to call them "Church." The book does not, however, take on a hostile or insensitive tone. He dispels some common Protestant misconceptions or falsehoods about Catholics, including their official views on Scripture (with which Sproul agrees). There are a few points where Sproul points out some contradictions in doctrine where the reader can sense his frustration, however. Much of this book I already knew from listening to Sproul's lectures on Catholic history earlier this year on his daily podcast.

It's true that Sproul knows more about Catholic history and doctrine and all its contradictions than the average Catholic. But the average Protestant is equally ignorant to his own doctrines and history. But there is much history described in this book, as well as philosophy from Aristotle to Aquinas. As always, Sproul reasons by using logic.

The core of the book is a defense of the doctrine of imputation. Sola fide- faith in Christ alone is a core tenet of the Reformation and Sproul defends it well while pointing out the clear differences that Catholics themselves delineated in response to the Reformation in the Council of Trent. Later doctrines, such as papal infallibility (1870), are problematic and Sproul allows the German Catholics who refuse to acknowledge the doctrine to speak for themselves. Sproul, like many Catholics, believe that Vatican I and Vatican II both left the Catholic church with unfinished business in defining their positions. He does not look much at modern statements by Popes, he sticks purely to official church positions.

There is a good critique of transubstantiation that I would recommend reading. The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) affirmed that Christ's spirit and body were separate, and the attributes of both remain separate. Christ's physical body did not possess the immortal nature of God's power. Sproul asks how, then, can Christ's body & blood be simultaneously everywhere during masses? Sproul's recounting of the key contentions between early protestants and Catholics are important as well.

If you're a Protestant reading this book, you'll find it very self-affirming. However, if you're a Catholic you'll probably point out that there are plenty of intelligent Catholics who have already dealt with the issues that Sproul raises. I recently listened to an interview with Jim Tonkowich, author of How (Not) to Become a Catholic where he criticized certain protestants (without mentioning Sproul by name) for making it sound like Catholics must not be studious or intelligent since they seemingly hold to so many contradicting positions. Tonkowich argues that determining what is "essential" is problematic and questions who gets to decide. You can listen to that interview at the Research on Religion podcast here.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I learned a few things and am glad to have it as a reference. I'm glad to entertain critiques of the book, however, and I'm sure there are plenty.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Sermon of the Week (12/7 - 12/13, 2014) Greg Pinkner on John 2:1-11

Greg Pinkner is the teaching pastor at Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, TN and the best of any of the teachers/preachers listed on the right side of my blog. You can watch or listen on this page or subscribe to their podcast for the mp3. This sermon is titled The Light Shines and is on John 2:1-11, where Jesus turns the water into wine (from 11/30/14). It is the best exposition of this passage that I have ever heard. Pinkner is up front about his preferred interpretation of the symbolism behind the order of activities and number of days in John's narrative-- nothing was put in John's carefully crafted Gospel by accident. Jesus is coming to fulfill the law and do away with the  "old wine and the old wineskins." Jesus is saying that something greater than Abraham and the prophets are here and the Jews are clearly missing it. Pinkner ties it into Advent wondering how we Americans can crowd out the Word becoming flesh by making Christmas about something other than Jesus. You will want to follow up with his message "The Light Reveals" from 12/7/14 on John 2:13-22, where Jesus cleanses the temple.

Do not miss this sermon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch (Book Review #116 of 2014)

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband
I was attracted to this book because my son is on the autism spectrum. I find it helpful to read books written by adults with high-functioning autism because they often clearly describe what their world looks and feels like. It turns out that this is actually one of the best books on marriage from a husband's viewpoint that I have ever read. Finch credits British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen's work for helping Finch understand himself. If Baron-Cohen is right that "autism can be considered as an extreme of the normal male (brain/psychological) profile," then every married man can learn from this book.

Finch and his wife Kristen go through five years of pain and emotional separation in marriage before Finch is diagnosed with autism. He is quite fortunate to have married a woman to show him "true grace" and be willing to both put up with his quirks in the surprise that she is not who he thought she was, and to slowly work with him to improve the marriage after the diagnosis.

Finch and his wife were friends in high school and began dating in college. He admits that he worked hard to put on his "best face" all the time and hide many of his quirks. Despite clear warning signs while they were living together, both thought the situation would magically improve once they got married and that the other party would change for the better, just like many young married couples. Misguided expectations lead to bitter disappointment.

Finch is determined to overcome his symptoms and become the perfect husband. He keeps a daily journal of his epiphanies and progress as he learns things like how to be empathetic, how to deal with change and disappointment, how to have constructive conflict, etc. His problem isn't just Asperger syndrome, it's also having conservative parents who never argued and allowed no conflict within the house as models. He marries someone dynamically different from him, she stays in the marriage because he makes her laugh and she knows he'd do anything for her, and eventually they have kids.

If you've read any book on marriage, you've seen to-do lists for husbands to improve upon: "Show more affection, find ways to have fun together, listen to her and don't try to solve all her problems..." Imagine a husband picking up one of those books and determining to do all of them better than any husband and you have Finch. Finch does not rely on marriage books but learns these lessons directly from his wife and sets about to improve himself as intensely as any of his other obsessions. While his wife appreciates the effort, just the fact that he's constantly looking for improvement like a machine really drives her nuts. But he learns what it means to see things from her perspective, how to listen to her, and how to be her friend. The goal is to restore the friendship that they enjoyed so much before and while they were dating-- something every married couple should struggle to do. "Be her friend, first and always."

It was also great to read how he dealt with his kids. When given the responsibility to get his toddlers ready for daycare in the morning after Kristen leaves for work and he heads to his office, he goes about trying to meet their needs but not showing the love that they desperately need. He eventually finds the right balance.

It's also a good look at his work life as a sort of electronic engineer and later as a salesman. Somehow he advances through the ranks but also determines that he'll put everything aside to be a better husband and father.

In the end he is able to put down the notebook and intensity and just be there for his family. The family develops into the one he dreamed of, with pictures on the wall, the wife cooking dinner for the family to eat together while he plays with the kids, etc. It's a beautiful, and almost unbelievable, ending.

If you do not have a loved one on the autism spectrum, you may find the book annoying, particularly all of Finch's snide, sarcastic self-deprecating remarks throughout the book (demonstrating his humor, which he has to practice). The book also contains a lot of profanity. But I give it 4 stars out of 5, and recommend it.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/30 - 12/6, 2014) Dr. Bill Henard "The Songs of Christmas: Ave Maria"

I'm going to stick with the Advent/Christmas theme today.
I am a former member of Porter Memorial Baptist and have been listening to Dr. Henard's sermons for years. Of all the preachers on my list on the right, Dr. Henard quotes the most from outside resources-- commentaries, opinion polls, periodicals, etc. (I think his use of these have grown with technology, he's also one of the few I know who also relies on his iPad both for his notes and screen projection.) He is doing a series on the songs of Christmas. The first song he examines is Ave Maria (Hail Mary). I don't know that I've heard Ave Maria in a Baptist church (even at Christmas) but it's what he looks at. Despite the obvious clash with protestantism, the tone is not critical. 
"Within the biblical story, God reveals songs of celebration that were shared by those who experienced the birth of our Savior. This first song celebrates the announcement of Christ’s birth. When we experience the birth of our Savior, it brings great blessing to our lives. Here’s how."

Henard uses the song both to retell the birth narrative and the Gospel. I liked the sermon because in the second half he provides a defense of the virgin birth and its importance in the entire Gospel narrative. He also plainly states that several Catholic views on Mary are wrong.

In all, I've never heard a sermon series on Christmas songs so this got points for being unique. I look forward to the rest of the series. 

God is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Book Review #115 of 2014)

God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
When I was growing up, Advent was something non-Baptist churches did and I equated it with Lent. I'm glad that Advent has become more widespread and that even Baptist churches are putting out their own Advent devotions. This book is a popular Advent devotional, and it should be; it's a fascinating and thought-provoking read. I listened to this book on my commutes as I considered it akin to the sermons I often listen to on the drive. It was available online through my local library, provided by ChristianAudio.com.

There are 40 daily devotionals in this book with a theme for each week. It goes from November until January 6 (the Epiphany, which supposedly used to be a bigger holiday than December 25). Each devotional has a scripture, an excerpt from a Bonhoeffer sermon or writing, and a supplemental like a letter from prison by Bonhoeffer or comment from another theologian/pastor/author. It is very thorough and deep.

I highly recommend it, next year I may use this as my own daily devotional during the season.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Blog Post #1500

According to Blogger, this is my 1500th post. That's pretty amazing, and I'm thankful. This website tells me that there have been 3,466 days since the date of my first post, June 28, 2005. That means I have posted something like every 2.3 days. That includes roughly a year I took from blogging while living in other countries and posting on other blogs. It's fitting that my first post had a (one-sentence) book review; they have obviously evolved since then.

For my 1500th post, I'd like to point out some additional podcasts I've added to the side bar on the right. William Lane Craig is probably the most prominent apologist and Christian philosopher in America, and I have found his writings and podcasts helpful in thinking through some of the New Atheist and cosmology/physics book I've read this year.

My wife and I have also been following Serial, which is the #1 downloaded podcast in America right now. I'm not sure what makes it so gripping that it has spun off podcasts devoted purely to the podcast.

I have added Regeneration Church and The Point Community Church to local sermons. The Point is an Acts 29 plant that is interesting, I expect they'll branch to Georgetown before long.

I've also added Turkish Football Weekly, a show produced by Americans who (for some reason) love Turkish football. I enjoy this as I've adopted Galatasaray as my Turkish team.

There are some others I've added as well. Enjoy them all. 

Thanks for stopping by all these times. You stay classy, internet.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges (Book Review #114 of 2014)

I Don't Believe in Atheists by Hedges, Chris (2008)
I read Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens before reading this book, along with Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. I would recommend reading this book after reading theirs. Chris Hedges debated Hitchens and Harris, inspiring him to collect the arguments in this book. Hedges is a foreign correspondent, covering multiple wars and directing the Middle East bureau of the NY Times. He is no evangelical, he grew up a liberal Presbyterian that rejects certain parts of the Bible as literal (This creates some logical errors for him, see below.) He is critical of fundamentalist, right-wing American Christianity and sees it as equally grievous as the New Atheists.

Hedges writes that American Christians have grown wealthy via America's prosperity and globalization, and this prosperity has lead to arrogant behavior and churches that "love the poor but hate how they smell." Liberal Christians err in thinking that by becoming all-inclusive and standing for few things in particular they can make everything better. Hedges is not a neocon but rejects Christian liberals who embrace pacifism and believe, like the New Atheists, that mankind is progressing toward some more-englightened utopian future of its own accord. He likewise points out that the religious right and secular humanists both hold up America as a light to the world-- a place of blessed freedom and enlightenment. But this is problematic, as history tells us our country was made prosperous in part by slave labor, breaking treaties and massacring Native Americans, and that our enlightened civilization killed hundreds of thousands of women and children by intentionally dropping the atomic bombs on civilian populations in WWII. These actions were supported both by Christians who believed God created certain men superior to others as well as social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer who argued that evolution demanded survival of the fittest races. In other words, we have no moral high ground to stand on.

Hedges seems not to have read Francis Schaeffer, which is a pity for his arguments. But he is similar to Schaeffer in his examination of art and culture. For example, WWI occurred after a period in which there was much talk about the evolution of an enlightened people. The post-war art reflected the jaded cynicism and a rejection of those views. Hedges rightly compares Sam Harris et al to Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), a highly civilized, enlightened European supposedly above the savages he meets in the Congo who becomes a savage himself. Such a vision is the logical conclusion of the New Atheists world. Harris, for example, advocates pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims who he sees as a major threat to his secular freedoms. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens was supportive of the 2003 invasion of Iraq because it boded well for the spread of secularism over religious fanaticism.

New Atheists preach a utopia achieved by enlightened human evolution and argue that we're evolving toward a better nature. This leads to a sort of racism, because they purport that it's the religious people who are holding our society back. Eliminate them, and let the intellectually enlightened elite make the rules. (That's the logical conclusion of their vision as pointed out in the 1970s by Francis Schaeffer.) Hedges writes that this is not only dangerous, but absurd, and contrary to what history has shown time and again and that he has observed around the world in various cultures. We're not growing more peacefully enlightened but more violent, and the violence has little-to-nothing to do with religion. Hedges disagrees with Harris that the Balkan war was religious, or that wars are primarily religious. He covered many as a correspondent, and argues that religious systems all over the world have been pluralistic and tolerant of others, contra what Harris & Hitchens preach. Suicide bombers have little to do with religion and more about shame and occupation. Hedges points out that suicide bombings originated with anarchists and communists on the left, and were originally used by groups such as the Tamil Tigers. The first suicide bomber in the U.S. was a Leftist making a political statement. Saudis and Palestinians see this as a way to wage war in the absence of armies, they find their occupation by foreign powers shameful and worth fighting.

Hedges does well in explaining how Richard Dawkins misuses evolutionary biology, he uses it as a basis for designing the structures in which we should interact; our legal code. This is as grievous as codifying the Ten Commandments. Darwin's theory was not a litmus test for determining whether human behavior was beneficial or not. Darwin in no way thought mankind was evolving into a more enlightened state or to some utopian endpoint. Darwin was a student of Malthus and had his own racist views, but Herbert Spencer took them farther, making social Darwinism into its own religion. This misuse of Darwin has created a "cult of science" that is harmful. Dawkins' world leads to selective abortions, eugenics, and genetic manipulation to weed out the bad elements and make ourselves better, more immortal.

Real scientific study tells us that evolution is a series of random processes that always finds ways around attempts to control manipulation. Hedges writes that quantum mechanics demonstrates that some things are unknowable, and that there will always be randomness. Psychology (and behavioral economics) repeatedly shows that people do not make rational choices, no matter what amount of information they have. The book concludes with a diatribe against the poisonous obsession with image, status, and wealth that is destroying our society and keeping us ignorant. Hedges writes that these New Atheists are products of this culture, using marketing techniques that play to our fears and ignorance, to hold themselves up as the experts who we should buy the product from. They dismiss our cultural, biological, and psychological realities and promise salvation by science and the evolution of human character.

More troubling, Harris and Hitchens pretended to be open-minded while having very closed systems. Hedges quotes from a debate where Harris refused to change his views on people in the Middle East despite being shown that he spoke no Arabic, had never lived there, and misrepresented a Pew research poll he was citing. Hitchens, likewise, made all sorts of theological comments but refused to read any theological work because it was all "worthless."

Forgiveness cannot be explained biologically. People are more than a random compilation of molecules because we have a spirit or soul that is a "mystery." Hedges' weakness is accepting the New Atheists comments on morality. New Atheists use a measure of morality similar to that of Christians, but without the logical underpinnings. If there is no God and we are all just random molecules and there is no such thing as a "soul" or an "afterlife" and no one is made in God's image, then on what basis to we decide right and wrong? Majority rule? The rule of the elite like Sam Harris? This is the biggest weakness of the New Atheists and Hedges misses it. But he does argue that religion is what creates ethics. That there is a soul that is a "mystery," and therefore sacred and to be protected. Biology does not give us any reason to forgive others, or love them as ourselves. The author writes that religious thought encourages human inquiry, to explore our universe.

Hedges writes that to reject the idea of sin is "catastrophic." The concept of sin is a check on utopian visions of totalitarians. We will never have a final victory over evil or achieve some type of moral perfection. As such, he critiques both New Atheists who proclaim there is no God, no soul, no afterlife, and have no means of defining evil or sin as well as liberal Christians who downplay the depravity of man. He quotes heavily from Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book.

I believe that Hedges has his own logic problem here. He rejects literal interpretations of the Bible yet criticizes liberal Christians for not taking sin literally enough. His argument relies on some absolutes, and since those are biblically-based it begs the question: How much of the Bible or truth does he believe in? How does he decide? He seems to embrace modern cosmology and natural selection. This is problematic because the Bible says death only entered the world because of sin-- you can't have millions of creatures dying in an evolutionary process and hold to biblical teachings about the origin of sin and death. If you reject Genesis, then you have to reject Jesus' quoting of the book, which makes even more things fallible.

Hedges is mainly arguing against the illogical arguments of the New Atheists and pointing out the danger in following their philosophies to their logical conclusions. Likewise, he is attacking both liberal Christians and evangelicals. About 70% of his critique is on those he debated, the other 30% is directed at Christians.

I enjoyed this book and agree with Hedges in much, but he has his own formal errors that need to be addressed. He would do well to read William Lane Craig, Francis Schaeffer, and Ravi Zacharias to name a few. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Winners Dream by Bill McDermott (Book Review #113 of 2014)

Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office
I received an advanced copy of this book from Simon & Schuster via Goodreads for the purpose of reviewing. Opinions are my own.

If you've read Peter Thiel's Zero to One this year, then you'll note that McDermott is a Peter Thiel character-- one in which hard work and determination determine the outcome rather than luck. It's a story of someone who worked hard for success and got everything he ever wanted and more. McDermott writes "my humble hope is that my book furthered the pursuit of your own winner's dream."

Still, the SAP's CEO benefited from the luck of having parents who were always supportive and encouraging optimists. His mother always tells him "you can be whatever you want," and he believes it. His father is a coach and McDermott learns coaching and teamwork lessons from him. It's a very stable home, albeit not a wealthy one. McDermott does not delve into much of the difficulties or any conflicts with siblings. No personal sins, regrets, heartbreaks, etc. show up in the book. As such, it's quite shallow personally. The deepest he gets emotionally is enduring his wife's breast cancer and the death of his mother (fairly recently). He alludes to some sort of faith, but it seems opaque and not essential to his person.

But at least it's a book on leadership and management by a leader who has both led and followed. It's a solid look at corporate culture and how the right leader with the right message and personal integrity can galvanize support and motivate people to perform for a cause greater than themselves. My issue is that the cause is pretty much the corporation's sales and the individual's personal achievements. What good is it a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul? (Jesus).

Here's a look at the timeline:
McDermott was born into a lower middle class family, his father a welder. They moved from various apartments into a small home in Amityville, a home which often flooded. McDermott is a serial entrepreneur starting as a paper boy then as an ambitious stock boy for a grocer. He's willing to take on risk, he took out a loan to purchase a deli and leads it to greatness. There is very little mention of the overall economy during his formative years and I suspect he dodged a few economic bullets; his risks seemingly all paid off handsomely.

After attending a local college, he essentially talks his way into an entry-level sales job at Xerox (about the time David Kearns comes on as CEO with a new focus on quality), then leads Xerox in sales for the next two years. He is tasked with leading Team F at Xerox, expanding sales in a new territory and taking that region to #1.
McDermott travels on his salespeople's calls, coming up with innovative ways to motivate but not breed competition. He constantly focuses on how it's a team game. Once one employee has hit his sales target and earned his vacation/bonus, McDermott assigns that employee to work with another until everyone hits their targets.

McDermott then gets asked to look at the Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands branch, which is 64th in the world for Xerox and in bad need of a turnaround. He moves his family there, aggressively learns Spanish, while creating a new culture in the office. He takes the region to #1 in sales growth, again being the "winner," as he sees it. Xerox moves him to Chicago to turn that region around, which appears to be one of the more difficult tasks in the book. As he works his way up the corporate ladder, he begins to chafe under the traditional Xerox mentalities that he feels is holding the company back. He is constantly reinventing Xerox's marketing in his own regions/departments, pushing the envelope of their business model.

I looked up Xerox's stock price during this period:

    - relative peak of 11.63 on 10/3/80.
    - bottoms at 4.56 in 8/6/1982. (Kearns takes over as CEO in 1982, just before McDermott is hired.)
        In 1983- Xerox buys Crum & Forster, starts Xerox Financial Services in 1984. McDermott later cites this as a bad move for Xerox.
    - climbs to 14.11 8/21/87
    - Stock tanks again to 4.85 10/26/90
    - Rockets through the 90's to 62 on 1/29/1999, around the time McDermott finally left.

After McDermott jumps ship at Xerox, he ends up at Gartner and another company before landing at SAP America. He is recruited to turn the business around in 2002, and establishes his own vision for the company in 2003.
    - SAP stock price bottomed at 10.28 on 10/4/02.
    - Was 42.30 on Jan 2, 2004. This represents McDermott's value added. Under his leadership, the company broke a years-long streak of not hitting its quarterly revenue target.
At SAP, conflict arose among managers who couldn't live up to McDermott's new expectations, or just didn't like the job. People who didn't buy in left. 85% of his leadership team moved on. So, McDermott simply taps his own network to replace them, demonstrating the importance of building relationships and not burning bridges.

In February, 2010 he is named co-CEO and successfully co-manages the company with his counterpart friend. This is post-financial crisis and the company needs another turnaround. Like most tech companies, SAP lost most of their share price, as companies became scared to invest in new fields. McDermott is determined to embrace the Cloud and makes strategic mergers with other companies. "Trust is the glue" with the CEOS of acquired companies.

McDermott finally became sole CEO in May, '14. Recent press releases state that SAP is cutting about 3 percent of its 67,000 workers, or about 2,000 jobs as McDermott repositions it to develop more cloud-computing software. The company plans to hire enough new people to offset the cuts.
The key takeaways can be found as the subheadings within the chapters, which together reads like a compilation of every leadership text ever produced.

I have copied and pasted this list from someone else's review (with my additional comments in parentheses):
~Focus on the customer. If your customer isn't happy with your product or service, he will find an alternative, and you won't have a job.
~Find ways to distinguish yourself from your competition. Figure out what you can do that they can't.
~Goodwill gestures can help seal a deal by making your customer feel like you trust them. (This may mean bending the rules of corporate policies)
~Keep your word. (Trust is the glue that binds organizations and partnerships together).
~Give your employees audacious goals, it will motivate them.
~Keep alert to the culture around you. Serve food in a food culture, celebrate things that should be celebrated, provide perks and incentives that boost morale and solicit employee feedback about them.
~Build rapport with all people because it makes them feel valued and makes them want to help you. (ask "How can I help?" of both clients and co-workers).
~Don't discount yourself, your product, or your services. Have faith in their/your value.
~Identify your own goals and aspirations (and don't settle for a path that takes you away from these).

The importance of inter-departmental communication is also highlighted. You can't have sales people out promising something that your engineers and customer service can't deliver. McDermott found the red tape in order processing and human resources at Xerox maddening for this reason. Bureacracies are hard to manage.

I learned quite a bit about Xerox and a little about SAP. McDermott gave good examples of how he learned from other leaders, but generally he had no problems working for the bosses he had because they saw his aggressive energy and "let me do my thing."

I recommend this book as an example of leadership and good management practices. I would give it to individual students to show them what is possible. I would not assign it for a class or use it as a case study. In all, I give it three stars out of five.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (Book Review #112 of 2014)

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
I found this book to be a very good explanation of the theories of multiple universe that are being bounded about by M-theorists and other modern quantum physicists. It is an easier read than The Elegant Universe and more detailed than Hawking's The Grand Design. This book sets the clear tone that has to be answered by Christians and others who believe in absolutes. But reading this book, one has to remember that physics research/conclusions changes. Books written about black holes in the 1980s, for example, have to be scrapped in light of modern math being worked out.

The book closes with a long diatribe by Greene on how nothing in our world may actually be real, we could all be living in a simulated multiverse. After all, we see how video games like The Sims and research into artificial intelligence are evolving quickly; it's not hard to think about how our grandchildren may be manipulating simulated life, so maybe we're actually living in such a scenario and everything we do is more or less dictated by a game player. And what about the world the game player lives in? It could also be simulated, and he could be a simulation himself! You end up with an infinite loop of simulations...until what? Greene doesn't say. Greene doesn't even think to mention DesCartes "I think, therefore I am." If I'm doubting what Greene is saying then I must necessarily be thinking, and I reject the notion that my myriad of doubts are simply simulated by someone running my life like The Sims. It's clear why Stephen Hawking can say that modern philosophy hasn't kept up with physics (The Grand Design). Modern physics would move philosophy back a thousand years.

But I give this book 5 stars for clearly elucidating the theories of the multiverse and explaining where the most modern physics are.

Research into inflation-- the rapid expanse of the universe from proton-sized to the holder of galaxies in the blink of an eye-- has important implications for how we view our world and philosophy. Assumptions that the universe is finite and began at a specific instant in time are being challenged by M-theory. If the universe is infinite, then it has always existed and there are also multiple universes. If the universe is finite, then there are not. Greene writes that experiments with the Hadron collider are basically trying to find out whether we're living on a brane universe. If it can be determined we live on a brane, then it is much more likely that our universe is one of many. Greene states at the outset that he is not sure, and that much cannot be proven. But how you look at cosmology has deep implications for how you view your own humanity. 7 billion years ago, universe sped up its expansion and it's still rapidly expanding. So, what happened 7 billion years ago needs to be explained.

The particals called "inflatons" necessary to explain the process of inflation are theoretical. That's a problem with physics that Greene addresses- is any of this theoretical speculation on things that cannot be actually proven still be classified as "science?" Science means testable hypotheses, can any of these be tested? A hypothesis simply sets conditions that can later be tested (at least in theory), which means that the various ideas thrown about by cosmologists are science, according to Greene.

Greene goes through all the various possibilities for multiverses:

Table 11.1 Summary of Various Versions of Parallel Universes
1. Quilted Multiverse: Conditions in an infinite universe necessarily repeat across space, yielding parallel worlds.
2. Inflationary Multiverse: Eternal cosmological inflation yields an enormous network of bubble universes, of which our universe would be one.
3. Brane Multiverse: In string/M-theory's braneworld scenario, our universe exists on one three-dimensional brane, which floats in a higher-dimensional expanse potentially populated by other branes - other parallel universes.
4. Cyclic Multiverse: Collisions between braneworlds can manifest as big bang-like beginnings, yielding universes that are parallel in time.
5. Landscape Multiverse: By combing inflationary cosmology and string theory, the many different shapes for string theory's extra dimensions give rise to many different bubble universes.
6. Quantum Multiverse: Quantum mechanics suggests that every possibility embodied in its probability waves is realized in one of a vast ensemble of parallel universes.
7. Holographic Multiverse: The holographic principle asserts that our universe is exactly mirrored by phenomena taking place on a distant bounding surface, a physically equivalent parallel universe.
8. Simulated Multiverse: Technological leaps suggest that simulated universes may one day be possible.
9. Ultimate Multiverse: The principle of fecundity asserts that every possible universe is a real universe, thereby obviating the question of why one possibility - ours - is special. These universes instantiate all possible mathematical equations.

The theoretical universe where absolutely nothing exists would exist the set of universes contained in #9 above. (Wrap your head around that.) There is much history on research attempting to determine whether or not the cosmological constant equals zero. The size of the cosmological constant matters greatly for the formation of galaxies and such. Putting it in the equation makes a difference, as does its magnitude. So, a physicists' assumption on the magnitude of the cosmological constant has huge implications for how you look at the universe and humanity. How many universes needed to exist for it to be reasonably possible that one containing our exact cosmological constant could exist? Greene works that out.

Cyclical cosmology purports that the universe had no beginning or end, it exists in an infinite loop. This conflicts with the law of entropy, which is observed in our universe, that things are moving from order to disorder-- necessitating a beginning point. Greene explains how modern views combine the theory of relativity with cyclical cosmology to find a way around the need for a big bang. It's complicated, and he at least explains what the math looks like at some points.

There is plenty on Calabi-Yau shapes, and Calabi-Yau spaces. I don't get it, honestly.

Greene takes a long look at the math's implications for the anthropic principle - the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. Some proponents of the anthropic principle reason that it explains why the Universe has the age and the fundamental physical constants necessary to accommodate conscious life. As a result, they believe it is unremarkable that the universe's fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life (wikipedia). In other words, the universe is as it is because we're here. But Greene explains the multiverse with the analogy of a shoe store-- there are plenty of pairs of shoes and one of them must match your feet. The Milky Way is one of an infinite number of galaxies, and happens to be just the one that can sustain us, which we shouldn't find remarkable.

Also from wikipedia:
The anthropic idea that fundamental parameters are selected from a multitude of different possibilities (each actual in some universe or other) contrasts with the traditional hope of physicists for a theory of everything having no free parameters: as Einstein said, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world." In 2002, proponents of the leading candidate for a "theory of everything", string theory, proclaimed "the end of the anthropic principle"[33] since there would be no free parameters to select. Ironically, string theory now seems to offer no hope of predicting fundamental parameters, and now some who advocate it invoke the anthropic principle as well.

In the end, Greene hypothesizes that we're all in a simulation. Perhaps even the laws of physics we experience in this world are programmed into the simulation and may not hold in other simulated universes. Perhaps they are also accidents or unsolved problems in the code of the program being run that we inhabit (seriously, this is the best physics can do). 

I read a recent interview with Greene that faith and a belief in a Creator are not incompatible with physics (though he rejects any literal interpretation of Genesis) but it's clear that an infinite universe-- with no beginning or end-- needs no creator or creation point. I do not think Greene explained well how to reconcile what we know about a Big Bang -- that there was a beginning of the universe-- with the inflationary infinite loop. Much less how we can pinpoint the increase in the speed of the expansion 7 million years ago when such measurements are pointless if the timeline is infinite in both directions.

Greene makes an interesting point that the human eye only evolved to see certain types of radiation-- like light, which contains information (his only foray into biology). Other types of radiation and information remain hidden to the naked eye. I've never seen an atheist explain how the light came to hold that information, except for Greene's simulated universe explanation. How did the eye know that the information was there to be processed? This is a problem for biologists, much less physicist-philosophers like Greene and Hawking. If Greene's infinite universe with infinite multiverses is correct, then we are all just a random compilation of molecules (as stated by Greene). At this juncture, it would appear physics is incompatible with evolutionary biology. Biologists purport that everything evolved in response to the results of trial-and-error processes that necessitate cells understanding information and responding accordingly (Richard Dawkins & company don't explain where that information came from, either). In the Greene/Hawking philosophy, it was purely random. Yet, they both agree that life is dependent upon information. This seems, to me, to be quite a contradiction (rather than just a paradox).

This book is important because Greene alludes to the implications modern physics has for philosophy, and therefore ethics, human rights, theology, etc. Every Christian should read it as well as every atheist and respond with their own coherent philosophical critiques. I hope to read physicist Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics for a critique of Greene's string theory/M-theory from some of his own colleagues.